Japan gluten-free

Hello everyone!

This is a short guide for everyone travelling to Japan and willing to know how to eat good things avoiding gluten. I am Italian, so I apologize for English mistakes, nonetheless I would like to write down some helpful suggestions for coeliac and wheat allergic/sensitive people, so they can enjoy a wonderful trip in Japan! If there is any question I could answer you, please visit my about page or post a comment below.

I travelled Japan three times until now, although, maybe “lived” suits better than “travelled”. I can tell you relying on a small kitchen is very helpful if you get carried away by plenty of goods they have stored neatly in shops and markets. In fact, Japanese diet basic ingredients (rice, soybeans, ginger, fish, seaweeds)  don’t contain gluten naturally, but the problem, the very BIG problem you may get stuck with is SOY SAUCE.

Thinking at soy-sauce as a sauce, in other words, a dressing you can choose if add it onto your dish or not is one of the possibilities, especially when you go eating sushi. But soy sauce is far more than this! It is used like oil or butter in European kitchen, sometimes even as it was water. Soy sauce for Japanese is paramount, as it 「味をつけろ」aji-o-tsukeru – as they say –  it makes food tasteful.

But there isn’t need to lose heart, even if soy sauce is quite everywhere.  First of all, I suggest you to 1) look at the color of food. If soy sauce has been used, vegetables, rice balls, fish or whatever gets brown, roasty brown or sometimes light shade brown (like in the case of oden – boiled vegetables). To be sure you may want to 2) read the ingredients chart but it is generally written in Japanese, so if you can’t read characters, have a look at my Give it a name chart (below). When you go to the restaurant 3) ask for salt and lemon instead of soy sauce. They will be pleased to give you a very tiny bowl filled with marine salt and lemon on the side. Row fish is ways more enjoyable if you put some lemon drops on it, and, if you like chilly, don’t forget wasabi (it looks like a green mayo, it is made from horseradish and it is really hot – the high quality one!). Otherwise, 4) you can buy your own soy-sauce, carrying it over and using it whenever you like. Japan’s 100 yen shops lend you a hand on it as you can buy tiny lovely plastic cases in the shape of animals or geometric ones (they usually use them for children bento) so that you won’t carry over the entire soy sauce glass bottle – a dead weight in your ruck – and you don’t have to worry about your camera to get dirty in your bag.

Buying soy sauce


Two types of gluten-free soy sauce

Usually soy sauce is made by: soy beans, salt and wheat. Even Japanese people don’t know that and they stare at you when you say you have gluten allergy (they hardly understand the word “celiac”) so you can’t take soy sauce. They tell you right back:

– “Uh, so are you allergic to beans? To soy beans?”

– “No, I’m just allergic to gluten and wheat, but beans are ok”

– “Ah, so soy bean is the problem!”

Ok, don’t take it personal, as happens here (at least in Italy) many times, Japanese people are not used to the fact somebody could be gluten-allergic, as this disease is not spread out so much in their country. They tend to think you are soy allergic – but after all is not such a big deal. The important thing is they don’t cook your food using soy sauce – right?! 🙂

There are a few kinds of soy sauce, there is one called “tamari” sauce – the strongest  one – that is made just by beans and salt. Tamari sauce is ok. You can find that in supermarkets, the big and expensive ones (for example Precce@Tokyo Midtown, Minato-ku). Unfortunately, it is a bit more expensive than the normal one, as it is more valuable. Check the label, it should report: 「原材料: 大豆、お塩」or 「大豆100%」[Ingredients: soy beans, salt or soy beans 100%]

If you are having a hard time in finding it in supermarkets and you are already in Japan, here is a link to purchase it online (at Rakuten). This one is made 100% by organic soy beans grown in China and has strong flavor, as the label shows.

Once you have cleared the soy sauce hurdle, you can enjoy almost everything in Japan, tasting also the marvellous Thai, Indo and Chinese food.

“Give it a name ” chart

Free download pdf here (Japanese kanji more visible) Give-it-a-name-chart

Kanji Pronunciation English Italian
Mughi Wheat Grano
Mughi Barley Orzo
黒麦 Kuromugi Rye Segale
麦/オッツ Mughi/Otsu Oat Avena
* * Spelt Farro
麦芽 Bakuga Malt Malto
お米、ご飯 Okome, Gohan Rice Riso
ともろこし Tomorokoshi Corn Mais
馬鈴薯澱粉片栗粉 BareishodenpunKatakuri-ko Potato starch Amido di patate
 大豆 Daizu Soy Soya
 古代紫 Kodaimurasaki Reddish purple Amaranto
 粟粒 Awatsubu Millet Miglio
 キノア Quinoa Quinoa Quinoa


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